Innisfail in far north Queensland is an Art Deco jewel, and August Moon Caravan Park south of town presents a perfect stopover.
Many southern visitors, hell-bent on reaching Cairns (“only 90km to go!”), do an express drive-through of Innisfail. However, those who take a break here find that the town is multicultural, features Art Deco streetscapes and is handy to a number of attractions.
Innisfail, settled in the 1880s for sugar and timber production, is at the junction of the North and South Johnstone rivers, with the state’s highest mountain, 1622m Mount Bartle Frere, in the background.
From the outset, the town had a cultural blend of Aboriginal, European, Chinese, Indian and Pacific Island people. This international mix was given an extra boost after WWII With the arrival of migrants from Italy, Greece, Spain and Yugoslavia, who introduced aspects of their colourful cultures to North Queensland and helped sugar production to boom.
About 2km south of Innisfail is the Australian Sugar Industry Museum, which traces the industry from 19th century horse-drawn ploughs and Kanaka (Pacific Islander) labour to modern mechanical harvesters and computer-controlled mills.
Some post-war migrants diversified into banana and papaya plantations. Later in the 20th century they branched out into such exotic fruits as mangosteen, sapodilla, rambutan, abiu, pummelo (pomelo) and carambola.
Just a short stroll through Innisfail reveals its ethnic diversity. A magnificent Catholic Church – largely funded by the Italian community – dominates a hilltop. The town’s eye-catching red and gold Lit Sing Gung (Chinese temple) honours Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship, and contains ornate statues and other relics from Innisfail’s first joss house (shrine), built in the 1880s. On their Art Deco facades, shops display names from various national backgrounds – Oliveri, Singh, Mellick, On Tai and Larsen are a few that spring to mind.
Art Deco streetscapes are a feature of this town, which was devastated by a 1918 cyclone and storm surge that left only 12 houses standing. During the 1920s and ‘30s, sturdy new buildings were constructed to outlast future cyclones, and the Art Deco style of that period has endured. Even the clock tower, fire station and water tower are styled accordingly.
A quite different attraction is Johnstone River Crocodile Park, home to hundreds of crocs including a large 5m saltie, improbably called Gregory. Guides explain the breeding habits and survival techniques of saltwater/freshwater crocodiles and American alligators and conduct jaw-snapping feeding sessions. Dingoes, potoroos, snakes, kangaroos and emus are all popular with visitors, but magnificent cassowaries are the stars. Up to 80kg in weight and 2min height, these flightless birds disperse the seeds of many rainforest tree and vine species.
To learn to identify some of these northern trees, we recommend a walk in Innisfail’s 50ha Warrina Lakes and Botanical Gardens. Level, well-marked paths wind through mahogany, milky pine, buttonwood, blue quandong, Qld silky ash, etc.
If none of this grabs you, check out the fishing. Mudcod, mackerel and marlin can be found in the Johnstone River, local beaches and deep-sea territory respectively. Even fumble-fingered fishers like us have landed the odd suicidal trevally. A small fishing depot on the Esplanade alongside the Johnstone River sells reef and deepwater fish and succulent prawns, direct from the fishing boats.
Some people pause in Innisfail only for practical reasons (mechanical repairs, shopping, fuel, etc.) and decide to stay a while after discovering how interesting the place is, and how warm and friendly the people are.
AUGUST MOON CARAVAN PARK
It takes a couple of days to explore Innisfail and surroundings, and August Moon Caravan Park (a Top Tourist member) on the quiet, southern outskirts of town is a pleasant base from which to do so.
The first owners chose the park’s name after seeing the John Patrick/Vern Sneider play, Teahouse of the August Moon. The park itself has been in theatre spotlight as well. Playwrights Adam Grossetti and Jean-Marc Russ visited Innisfail after Cyclone Larry and based a play, August Moon, on the March 2006 disaster, centred on dramas at the caravan which was almost wiped out. The play premiered in Brisbane’s Bill Brown Theatre in July 2008 and enjoyed a successful six-week run.
The 3.5 star park has been considerably refurbished since Cyclone Larry and offers welcome, up-to-date conveniences. Large, drive-through, powered sites take the pressure out of parking and even A-class motorhomes should have no problems. There’s a grassed camping area as well, and a range of ensuite and non-ensuite cabins.
Junior campers can burn up energy in the playground or three-level saltwater pool. Meals are a breeze on the new camp kitchen’s gas barbeque and even easier for those who patronise the roadhouse restaurant across the road. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, a courtesy bus transports guests to and from the RSL and Brothers Leagues clubs, where meals are modestly priced.
There’s a decently-stocked kiosk and internet facilities.